So you took all the right advice as an undergraduate and now you are headed off to that graduate program you dreamed of attending. What can you expect as you prepare for a career in academia? What should you do to maximize your chances of getting a tenure-track job?
The first thing to remember is that you are now in a cohort of students who are mostly just like you. They also did all the right things as undergrads. They are smart, they are engaged, and they want the same things you do. Surviving and thriving in a PhD program requires all of those things.
But beyond that, it also requires that you have a deep passion for your discipline. Not only will this help you to get through the difficult parts of your graduate career, it will help you set yourself apart from others in your program. Practically, here are a few steps you can take to accomplish this.
Don’t focus on your coursework. Focus on writing.
The most general advice for the actual experience of a PhD program is simple: adjust your habits to a reality that’s different from your undergraduate years. For example, even for engaged PhD-bound undergraduates, coursework was the primary focus. The undergraduate experience revolves around what happens in the classroom. In graduate school, your courses are not nearly as important as finding ways to enter into the ongoing scholarly conversation in your discipline.
Take ownership of your learning.
Spend as much time as you can reading the professional literature in your discipline—beyond what your professors assign for classes or even comprehensive exams. Your own curiosity and desire to master your discipline should drive you to find the latest work that you need to understand and take account of. Just as important, you’ll want to be familiar with the classics in your field that you aren’t encountering in class.
In many ways, you are responsible for your own learning as you pursue a PhD. If you wait for direction from faculty, you will find yourself on the outside looking in.
Seek out mentorship as you shift your mentality from that of an undergraduate to that of a scholar.
The best PhD programs are mentorships. Your faculty, and especially your dissertation advisor, are there to advise and even coach you as you become a member of the community of scholars in your discipline. This is extremely important as you adjust your self-perception from being a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. This is one reason why things like senior thesis projects are so valuable in your undergraduate years – they begin that very process of adjustment.
Treat each writing assignment as the beginning stage of a publishable piece of research.
One concrete example of the above-mentioned shift in mentality from undergraduate to scholar is how you should approach writing assignments in a graduate-level class. As an undergraduate, the assignment was probably very narrowly tailored. You likely tried to write something that would meet with the professor’s approval.
In graduate school, paper assignments are going to be more open-ended. The key is to see them as the opportunity to draft a paper that might, and perhaps should, one day get published. You are not writing to the faculty member, but to the discipline at large. The direct goal isn’t to get an A in the course, but to write something that will contribute to the knowledge in your field. (And you can rest assured that if you achieve that goal, the A in the class will happen as well.)
Never waste a writing assignment in a PhD program. Every single assignment should be the start of something that you might revise into part of a dissertation or a separate journal submission.
You should expect your faculty to treat your projects that way. Ask them for regular feedback on your work with an eye toward possible publication. They might well offer to co-author a paper with you if they think it’s good enough.
Look to your peers for inspiration.
As much as your graduate school colleagues are in some ways competitors, you should not forget the immense benefits of peer interactions. Bright undergraduates often don’t gain much from group work or talking about ideas with their fellow students. In graduate school, your fellow students can be invaluable sources of knowledge, inspiration, and collaboration. Each of them is a potential co-author.
View your studies as a full-time job.
View your pursuit of a PhD as a job, and one that will require more than 40 hours a week from you. You should live and breathe your discipline with the aim of getting a dissertation written and approved in the shortest feasible time possible. You don’t have to give up all of your outside interests and hobbies, but you do have to devote as much time as possible to acquiring the skills and aptitudes necessary for an established (employed) academic. You’ll know you’re on track if all of that work and focus feels less like a burden and more like a labor of love.